Great Escape Podcast episode 35 - One man's journey back from the edge

Uncategorized Oct 05, 2019

One man's journey from the mental "hellness" and a suicide attempt to a TED talk and the experience of our birthright, mental wellness.

David and I recorded this episode on August the 30th, one day before what he calls his "New Year's Day" and, by complete coincidence I'm preparing it for release one day before my birthday. As I watch the sun set over the Pyrenees preparing to help with a beautiful wedding tomorrow (yes, I'm working at the weekend and on my birthday) my thoughts are with a human being I'm incredibly privileged to have begun to get to know.

David, you are an inspirational human. Let's keep saving lives.

And to you dear reader... if you're thinking that life isn't worth living please reach out to someone and get help. In the UK you can call the Samaritans on 116123 and in the USA their number is 1 (800) 273-TALK.

David and I have both been to that place. We both came back from it and life is better - especially for those we nearly deprived of our existence.


- When I think about how my life has changed in unpredictable, unplanned, almost unbelievable ways, it's pretty extraordinary.

- We are go for liftoff in T minus 30!

- All systems are a go!

- Hit it.

- And on this episode of The Great Escape Podcast, I've got David Bartley. And often when I get in contact with people about being on the podcast, some people send me pages and pages of bio, and really interesting stuff. David sent me one line, and I knew I had to have him on the podcast, 'cause he just wrote, "One man's journey from mental hellness to mental wellness." David, welcome to the podcast!

- Stuart, such an honor to be here, good morning! Good morning, at least from the United States, good afternoon in the UK!

- You're really welcome. So David, tell us, what was life like before?

- You know, really on the one hand, and I'll jump just to the side for a second, and I would imagine you agree that... Had this line that sometimes what hurts the most can't be seen. So that was going on in the background. But on the surface, and especially close to the day that I was gonna end my life, which as of tomorrow is exactly 8 years, so August 31st, 2011. At the time I was married to a wonderful woman named Deanna, and we were running a very large, nationally recognized senior, special needs and end of life animal sanctuary called A Chance For Bliss. And the sanctuary was home to as many as a hundred animals at any one time; 25 horses, 23 dogs, all of whom lived in the house, by the way. So we were the advent of Dog House, that came from us. 9 potbellied pigs, I mean just imagine the quintessential Noah's ark on a beautiful two and a half acre parcel in a little hamlet, as I call it, called Penryn. About 30 minutes east of Sacramento in northern California. So life was extraordinary, in terms of what I was doing as a vocation. And we did no adoptions, because we looked for animals that were deemed to be unadoptable. And it was very purposeful, and even magical. And in the background was this relationship with what I call the monster, and in my case, clinical depression, which I had dealt with for close to 40 years. And I know now, I've discovered that the genesis of that was the inheritance of the genetic predisposition from my grandfather who ended his life very early, my father who was clinically depressed. Losing my father at just seven, the traumatic aspect, and the unfortunate, horrific experience of being twice raped by a trusted community leader. So, much in line with the statistics, I'm not a stat person, that the vast majority of men and people who deal with a condition like clinical depression, that it's started by the time they were 14. I fall, unfortunately, into that category. So the monster and I had had a long-standing relationship, sometimes he took a little holiday but for the most part he was there with me. And on that day, 8 years ago, after trying for close to 40 years, he convinced me, to the true essence and center of my being that I was worthless, that I was useless, stupid, grotesque, ugly, an embarrassment, a burden, and most damning was, I was convinced that everybody in my life at the time, they would be far better off in the absence of my death and this killing myself. And I emphasize that when I do talks, that in that moment, and right when I was on the literal edge, as I say a dark spot on a tall, tall bridge, I truly felt that my action was selfless, not selfish. Because the remnants of course are, "Why was this person so selfish?"

- And I think in, certainly in my research and understanding of suicide, and the work I do, it is almost never that that's what the person thinks. What you've described of actually... The brain has gone through a logical sequence of thoughts that have said, "Everybody else "will be better off if I'm not here."

- Right.

- And however distorted that process is, to get you to that point, inside the person suffering the depression, it feels like it is the logical, correct thing to do.

- No, and I agree, and your use of the word logical, Stuart, is perfect. It felt completely empirical, right? There was no... It made sense! Again, it wasn't logical, but it felt logical. Felt in a visceral sense, like there was no doubt.

- Yeah. Yeah, and from my own personal depression, you know that's exactly how I felt.

- Yeah.

- This sequence of events is the right, logical sequence of events. It feels like the right thing to do.

- Yeah, and so I remember--

- But hey, I interrupted you, so carry on.

- No no no, so I remember one on that... So I had, both from my own experience and from the view from the outside in, an idyllic expression. I mean people, the sanctuary was an amazing place, as you can imagine. We had as many as 23 dogs living in the house, in addition to another 75 animals outside, and if you think about 23 dogs in a house, there's all kinds of Stephen King-like images that come up in your mind, and yet it was clean, it was orderly, and because, this is my belief, that we did no adoptions, there was a very tangible sense of permanence. And if you think about no dog in particular had ever come to live with 22 other dogs, but when you would walk into the home it was literally peaceful and calm. And so to have this wondrous experience, people would come in and they, even on the property because it was clean and orderly as mentioned, not just inside but out, people couldn't... It was a Disneyland-like experience. And yet I could not grasp, the monster had convinced me so completely, that it didn't matter that I was taking care of dying animals, like you just said perfectly; Deanna my former bride, she would be far better off. She'd be able to take the sanctuary to the next level. And so, here in Sacramento, in the summertime it's dry and it's warm, and almost no clouds, and so I woke up on that morning, typed out my suicide note, and then without telling Dee or anybody else where I was headed, I remember it was interesting, I had a red pickup truck at the time. And I look back respectively now and say it's the emergency color. When I made the short drive from our home in Penryn, there's a bridge called the Foresthill Bridge. Now everybody knows the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge stands 250 feet off the water. Well Foresthill Bridge stands 730 feet off the water. It's enormously tall. So I parked my vehicle, and I remember I turned it off and I put my hands reflexively, for whatever reason, at the 10 and two position on the steering wheel, pushed my body back into the passenger seat, closed my eyes, and then quickly opened my eyes, took a deep breath, reached over, grabbed the suicide note, placed that on the center of the dash, took the keys out of the ignition, placed those in the center of the note, exited the vehicle, turned around to make sure I'd left the door unlocked, crossed the road, and then... The Foresthill Bridge, the bridge deck is close to a half a mile long. And the view from either side is spectacular, and I was intentional to just focus on the the light post that was at the center point. And very committed to not make eye contact with the people who were driving by. And so I walked to the middle; at the time the suicide barrier was about four and a half feet and I'm six feet, so it hit me kind of mid-chest. Interesting, the barrier has since been risen to a little over six feet, in the last eight years. I bent over, and again, resisting temptation to look ahead, focused on a singular dark spot in the middle of the river, the North Fork of the American river, which runs perpendicular. And I know you can relate, my mind, very committed at that point to keep me in a place of illusion, in the circle of my aim there was, the water wasn't flowing. It was, it became this object to fixate on, and in that place, time and space and all relativity except for that spot of water, went away. So I had no idea how long I stayed in that place but it was long enough for a passing driver to act, we've all done it at least once in viewing a scene, we have this feeling that something's not right with this picture. Something's off. Don't know exactly what it is but something's off. And she picked up the phone, called 911, and a first responder, a deputy sheriff approached me from the left-hand side and he did two things and I like to distinguish them. He initially established contact, which is a logistical experience, and then established connection, which is life saving. And in my belief, connection creates hope, and while faith and love are good, I believe hope is actually the greatest of the three. Created hope, and hope saved my life. And I was taken off the bridge into an emergency room and then to a psychiatric hospital, right, where I was a guest for 15 days. And really they had changed my life. And referencing back, when people found out I was there and why, they couldn't process it. It just, they saw me as this happy and contented soul, how could a person like this, how could a person like me, not realize their worth, how could they believe the lie. And it took them a great period of time to understand, slowly but surely, the intensity of the malady, the intensity of the ability of the monster to convince the soul of a lie. And so I stayed in this place and then got out, and then what's interesting and I don't always mention this, I've added it more to my talks. My life after actually getting out the psychiatric hospital was even more difficult. It was was this perfect storm of a critical health need, massive stress in running such a large operation, but also societal misunderstanding about mental illness. Stigma, even a hint of a prejudice. By the end of that year, I'd handed the keys to the repo man and watched him drive away with my vehicle as support for our efforts were taken away, lost a home to foreclosure and it was sold at auction, the animals were placed in other facilities and the marriage to a beautiful soul, and the massive weight of all of this ended. And so in the analogy of the plague of locusts, I was wiped out completely. And as I say, it was this experience that gave me the profound realization of the truth about connection. I made connection and a friendship, established a relationship with another middle aged man in the psychiatric hospital, named Don. When Don got out, he went to a men's depression support group, a group of middle aged men who met every week for two hours. And he called me, checked on me, I remember him saying, "How you doing?" And I said, "Not good. In fact, bro, I'm really "in a bad place." And where I'd gone is, I went to go live with my two brothers and sister-in-law, a place 8 years later, Stuart, I still live. In a different type of sanctuary. Don went to meeting, called me, and said, "I think you'd like it." And for the next six and a half years, every Tuesday I'd have my counseling appointment between four and five o'clock, have a break, and then go to group from six to eight. And from that group, met my current therapist, my current psychiatrist, the refinement of my diagnosis, and given the first opportunity to tell my story publicly seven years ago. And 400 plus talks all across the country, this, much like you shared with me, the establishment in the now of the living, of a brand new purpose. The sanctuary doesn't operate any more, but life, with a big L, has given me the opportunity to wrap mental health and animal stories to make a very daunting, intimidating subject very relatable with stories that everybody loves. But it makes the actionable items about self-care and leaning on others; it makes all those actionable items rememberable 'cause they can think about a horse that was gonna die, a thought came out, a dog that came depressed and was revived, and the duck that had been wounded and she lived in the bathtub, and all these different things. It keeps people in a place that they can hear what's the ah, central message is. This is a medical condition, we didn't choose it, and per four words that a psychiatrist said to me in the psychiatric hospital, which truly turned my life around as dramatically as the first responder on the bridge, when the psychiatrist leaned forward to me and said, "It's not your fault." Which by that point I had believed it was my fault. So these stories, these animal stories, when I think about how my life has changed in unpredictable, unplanned, almost unbelievable ways, it's pretty extraordinary.

- Yeah, and that's an amazing tale. Again, of that moment that driver who just thought, "Something's wrong here and I need to do something." And then there was a first responder available within the correct time frame, you know, all of these things. And for so many people, they're suffering in silence and their moment of crisis comes and there is nobody who says, "Ah, there's something wrong!" And I think you described very well, often the external life looks fine, people are looking at the life and soul of the party and I think if the five guys whose funerals I've taken in the last few months, who've taken their own lives, every one of them, their friends and family described that he was the life and soul of the party, he was always the guy who was getting everybody together, he was always the guy who was lifting friends up. We didn't realize he was struggling. And you kind of described that, almost perfectly, that sense of nobody looking in sees it. Also, the fact that it is often genetic, that we can look back in our family trees and sideways at cousins and siblings and see that it isn't just us. Also that it isn't just us, that in modern life, life in general, with immense stresses on all of us, and just like a bone will break if you put too much pressure on it, the brain is a chemical system and if you run it in hyper stress mode for too long, it starts to break, it starts to function badly. So your story to that point, and one of the lovely things I think really, you're quite open about the fact that it's taken you a long time to get to functioning again, and I think that's, you know in today's quick fix we think, you know, "I can take a pill and I'll be fine." No, you can take a pill and you can make the pain go away for 10 minutes, but the pain is still there when you come back. You actually have to change life dramatically. So how do you see life moving forwards? You said you were in this place of safety, and I, we were talking before we hit record, I too feel like I live in a place of safety now where I am cared for by my wife and have built the home around me that keeps me with the things that I need. How do you see the future for yourself?

- You know, that's a great question. As I say, in fact I taught a course yesterday for caregivers, and there was a card in self-care that I call, You Can't Give From An Empty Well; How To Use Self-Care To Stay Full. And caregivers are subject to compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, and then ultimately burnout. And I think you and I can share the burnout of the excessive wear and tear that depression puts on us, and I think we men in particular are subject to stress, that's certainly my number one trigger. So from, I was taught that the true source of the problem is the confluence of genetics and trauma. And that the monster's not just satisfied with feasting on our brain, our mind, he wants to devour our body and ultimately, as a final course, just eat our soul. So it impacts, really it's the whole of who we are, body, mind, and spirit, which is a sobering reality. But often times the identification and the realization of the severity of the problem, points the way to the solution. So I put, as I like to say, my self-care on a pedestal. There's nothing more important at this point. I no longer believe the lie that if I prioritize the care of me, I'm being selfish. 'Cause it's actually just the opposite. So, I'll will give myself credit primarily just for one thing, I am ridiculously consistent. So for body it's sleep hygiene, clean attention to diet, because as you know, more neurotransmission happens in our gut than in our head, and so we are what we eat. I go to the gym, after our podcast today I'll go to the gym for the fourth time this week. Make sure I'm outside every day, weekly counseling, monthly psychiatry, different support groups because I think... I recently heard a definition of hope is hearing other people's experiences, the realization that we're not alone, we're not this weird, grotesque anomaly, we have brothers and sisters, young and old, who walk oftentimes alone, and we get together there is strength in numbers. And then I take my meds, every day. I have two, an anti-depressant and a mood stabilizer. But here's where I always tell people, we need to have expectations. An anti-depressant is like an Advil, it's not an antibiotic. At best, and mine work beautifully, it quiets my symptoms to create the opening for the true healing aspects of diet and sleep and exercise. And then at the foundation is my own spiritual ritual with the life force of my understanding. And then now, like you said so beautifully, Stuart, the identification of what is my mission. What's my purpose? So I feel that I am making a contribution to the world. So long winded, in answer to the question, my job, my mission now, is I go out and tell my story. Primarily to anyone who will hear, from, I've talked to as young, children as young as five years old, I've talked to 90 year olds. Police, educators, businesses all across the spectrum, my life was saved, and I figure my job, my purpose, because I've been supported by a great number of people, I'm unusual, for a lot of reasons, in that for many of us who are overwhelmed, people run away, because they don't understand. But like those five souls, those five fortunate men that they came to you, you run towards them. I'm blessed by a great number of people who, since that day in the psychiatric hospital, have run towards me. And in part I want to honor what they've done and to remind people, people like that exist. And ultimately I want to stress the fact that on the one hand, I don't think we're ever gonna catch up with enough therapists and clinicians and social workers, which is sobering news, but the truth is we all hold actually the answer in our hand, and that's connection. We know what it's like when somebody remembers our name and we had no expectation that they would, makes us have this, we can go from invisibility to inclusion. We know what it's like when somebody creates a space so we can tell our story, and I'm a big one on a hand-written note that we go to the mailbox. And a hand-written note, it's a very uniquely sized envelope, and we're looking at unsolicited mail, and bills, and all of a sudden there's that note and we know that it's going to be one of three things. It's gonna be an invitation, might be money, some cash, or someone is going to tell us that they care, that they love us, and at one point I had two notes that, in particular, are still impacting me to this day.

- Yeah, that was an interesting thing about the hand-written note. There are a couple of things that happened to me many years ago. I had a business that was failing and my first wife and I were looking at, you know, can we actually pay the mortgage, can we feed the kids? And the postman knocked at the door and the envelope that he had wouldn't fit through the letter box. And I was thinking, "Oh great," you know, "I gotta sign "for this thing! It's gonna be legal proceedings," or whatever. And in it was 500 pounds in cash, so, what's that, you know, 750 dollars or so? Anonymous, just an envelope with cash in it.

- Anonymous?

- Um, yeah.

- Now, that story goes on, I actually worked out in the end who it was and I've been able to thank that person, although I did it in an anonymous way. But hey, that's a different story.

- I love anonymity to anonymity!

- So I knew they were in the room and I told the story and I thanked the person--

- I got it, yeah.

- That I knew that he was in the room. Anyway, and the other one was, I run this training business, and often, yeah it is often, every time in fact, after the course runs, one of the students will send me a card, just with a hand-written note, and yesterday my admin team and I were tidying up the office and it's a nightmare and everyone's in jeans and t shirts and we're in the office and we're moving furniture and we're cleaning everything out and Anita, my PA, found this card that had been put together at the end of one of the courses, and all the students had written things in it. And it was a little bit bent because it had been at the bottom of a pile of stuff, and she said, "Well, what are we doing with this?" And I thought, I can't bring myself to throw that away, we have to find a way of keeping these because, actually that's part of my recovery is when I'm feeling worthless is actually to look at that and say, "No, these people said these things about me," because I spend a week of my life training them to do the thing, and yeah, those handwritten notes. Those envelopes of obscure size.

- Yeah, exactly! I worked with one of the large universities on the east coast, and I was meeting with the Director of Student Life, the associate director, and we were talking about hand-written notes. Kia's probably in her mid-thirties, and from the time she was 16 years old, she has collected the hand-written notes and she takes that box and it just gets bigger and bigger. And in fact, if I may, so tomorrow is the eight year anniversary, and up 'til four years ago every August 31st, even along this journey to mental wellness, which I believe is a right, not a privilege, it was the worst day of the year. I looked at it, and just wanted to avoid it, and so four years ago, I went to the mailbox, and there was one of those uniquely sized notes, or envelopes, and I looked at the return address and didn't recognize it. So I opened up the envelope and sure enough it was a card, and on the outside of the card it says, "Advice from a glacier: Go slow, carve your own path..." blah blah blah and I'm like whatever. And then I open it up and in very large letters written in crayon, it says, "Happy Today!" Happy today, and it's from my sneaky, dear friend Greg, and he wanted to throw me off, and the short version of the story is, as a result of that note, for most of the world January 1st is New Year's Day, tomorrow is my New Year's Day. And I will journey back to the bridge and stand in that same spot, but I look up and I take in the magnificent view, and give thanks. And a result of a card, showing up on a day, somebody making sure, putting a stamp on it, that piece of paper changed my relationship with the worst day of my life to now memorialize it as the beginning of a new year.

- Yeah, yeah. I have a similar sense. For me it was Christmas. Christmas has been hell for years, and it was kind of the time that my first marriage broke up, it was the time that I kind of lost the plot completely, and it's taken, yeah that was 10 years ago, and then after this most recent, yes, now where are we, six years since, this'll be the sixth Christmas, that actually Christmas is, it's not the family time that you might dream it would be, but it's at least a time where I can go you know what, I'm okay. So yeah, that journey may be the mental wellness measure, the milestone a person can put in the ground is to say actually, when I look at my worst day, and it's now the day that I look up and look forward rather than the day I look down. Maybe that's the measure that you've really turned the corner.

- No, I do, and I think it, you know we don't, and I know you would support this, we don't get to this point alone. And I like to describe acceptance has two parts. One, the energy, that tangible energy that those who support us put out, it's this tractor beam. But we must take responsibility to move towards it. And so Greg, my beloved brother, not by biology but by association and connection, created that space. I could've looked at the note as like wow! But that piece of paper was literally oozing with love and understanding, and a calling forth. Like this is a possibility to change your relationship with that.

- Yeah. Well David, it's been an amazing conversation and as I said before we started, I have a sense we could carry on talking for hours, but everybody's commutes over now. They've got to work, they're sitting in the car, thinking, "Come on Stuart and David, shut up!"

- Right!

- "'Cause we want to stop listening to the podcast!" But let's aim to circle back and do another episode some time, and thank you so much for your honesty, for your openness, and for your story, which I hope will reach out there and encourage somebody to look up instead of look down, and to walk towards those who are there to help. We will put David's contact details in the show notes, and my own, we'll also put some contact details of useful organizations. A key one in United Kingdom is an organization called the Samaritans, they are always on the telephone, if you need them, 24 hours a day. And thank you, David, really been a privilege to have you on the show!

- And the feeling is, as my grandmother used to like to say, Stuart, right back atcha. Thank you so much for the privilege and the honor.

- You're welcome. Thank you so much for for listening to this episode of The Great Escape Podcast. You can find other episodes at all the usual places, on iTunes, Stitch, or on Spotify. Or at the website: And if you'd like to contact me to talk about any element of this episode or others I've covered, please go to and you can find all the ways of getting hold of me there. And if you're stuck in a situation and you can't find the way out, please go there, send me a message, and let's see how we can work together to get you unstuck and moving forward with your life again. Please do share this podcast with your friends and family, other people you think might appreciate it, and comment on episodes or send me a message. I'd love to keep the conversation going.

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